A Gay Synagogue in New York: Half a Century of Cheerful Struggles

Newsletter of July 1976 announcing the news of the arrival of a Torah

Chapter I: A Homosexual Temple on the West Side

February 8, 1973. It was another chilly day in New York City. America was caught up in the Watergate scandal. The New York Times ran a front-page story that day on Dwight L. Chapin, former aide to Nixon, confessing to the F.B.I. that he had paid someone to spy on the Democrats in 1971 and 1972. The Senate had just passed a resolution to set up a committee to investigate Watergate, in what would turn out to be a turning point in revealing the biggest political scandal of Nixon’s presidency.

Amid the political storm, an Indian Jew living in New York City made his own groundbreaking statement. His name was Jacob Gubbay, and he published an ad in The Village Voice, a weekly newspaper known for covering New York City’s cultural landscape, that announced a gay synagogue would hold Friday night service and an Oneg Shabbat, an informal Friday evening Jewish gathering, on February 9 at 8 p.m. The advertisement was a modest rectangular block about two inches in width and height. It didn’t have any fancy fonts, calligraphy or images: just an event name, a time, a location and a big title sitting above it all that said “GAY SYNAGOGUE.”

It seemed slightly out of place, on the upper-right of page thirty-seven, surrounded by music ads: easy concertina lessons, singing classes and a huge ad for the new Fisher record player, covering a third of the page. Modest as it was, it marked the founding of the first gay synagogue in New York City, the city with the largest Jewish population in the United States.

Years later, the synagogue that Gubbay established would portray the placing of that advertisement in a dramatic fashion. In a performance celebrating the anniversary of the founding, Gubbay would be portrayed as running into a friend on his way to placing the ad. The friend warns him:

“Look, you of all people should realize your position. I mean, you are from India, you know all about the untouchables. Well here it’s us gay people who are the untouchables. I’m telling you, man, if the immigration department finds out you are gay, they will put you on the first plane back to Bombay.”

“I appreciate your concern, but I’m going through with it,” Jacob says.

“Okay, it’s your funeral.”[1]

It is hard to know whether or not that conversation actually took place. But Gubbay was someone who would think outside of the box. He had arrived in New York a decade earlier, on August 20, 1962 abroad a Pakistani airliner,[2] despite the tensions between Pakistan and his native India that would erupt into war in 1965.

To find a location for his gay synagogue was not a big challenge for Gubbay: The Church of the Holy Apostles, of the Episcopal Church, was located in Chelsea, Manhattan, a vibrant center for gay life in the city, just blocks away from the Stonewall Inn, and by 1973 had become a well-known sanctuary for gay groups and activities in the neighborhood. The pastor of the church at that time, Father Robert Weeks, was known for his open attitudes towards gays, partially because his church was facing financial difficulties and needed rental incomes. As early as 1967, Weeks had organized a joint statement with other local priests announcing that homosexuality was “morally neutral” and he presided several early gay marriages. In 1970, Weeks had participated in the protest led by the Gay Liberation Front and Gay Activist Alliance. Before Gubbay founded the gay synagogue there, the church had already been used by multiple gay activist groups as a regular meeting spot.[3]  

Gubby would later tell an early member of the synagogue that, with Father Weeks’ permission, several gay Jews had been coming to Christian Sunday services held at the church. But some members of the church felt that too many Jews were present at their Sunday services and thus said Jews should conduct their own services. That was what inspired Guabby to start the gay synagogue.[4]

Gubbay was not a rabbi. In fact, he didn’t even know how to properly lead a Friday night service. When the time came, on February 9, he arrived at the location, the annex of the Church of the Holy Apostles, carrying two paper shopping bags, packed with candlesticks, kippot, kiddush wine and challah bread. The weather was not in his favor: the temperature dropped to below 30 degrees Fahrenheit, and it had rained earlier that day. However, ten people left their home in such a cold wet evening, walked through the church’s basement entrance and joined Gubbay for the service.

In the coming months, people gradually came to learn about the existence of a gay synagogue on the westside of Manhattan. Ads continued to pop up in The Village Voice and The New York Times. Newspapers in the area also noticed this small group of gay men and women gathering every Friday. Many community Jewish newspapers published skeptical articles, which ironically served as free press for the synagogue. Flyers about the synagogue were also spreading in certain bars and shops in the city. Words went out. It came in a time when the gay liberation movement was beginning to touch the world of Judaism.

Bill Fern first heard about the synagogue when he read an article in the Jewish newspaper in his North Jersey hometown. He immediately called his friend Irving Cooperberg. “Irv,” he said. “I just read about this group; we’ve got to go there.” Cooperberg agreed that they would go to the synagogue together after Fern returned from an upcoming trip to Europe. However, when Fern called Cooperberg again six weeks later to plan their first adventure to the synagogue, Cooperberg confessed that he had already gone. “Bill, I couldn’t wait,” he said. “I had to go without you. I had to see what it was.” Then Cooperberg expressed to his friend the love he had for the synagogue, framed as a warning.

“If you don’t like these people,” he said. “I don’t think I can ever be friends with you at all.”

Fern felt in love with the synagogue as well. He would soon become an active member of the fast-growing group. For many early members, the synagogue provided them with a rare place that allowed them to reconcile their identities as gay men and Jews.

“I saw the ad: GAY SYNAGOGUE and I thought, hey I’m gay, I’m Jewish, why don’t I go there? I came and never left,” said Dick Radvon, who joined the congregation in 1973, shortly after it was established.[5]

Ads, articles and flyers attracted more and more people like Fern and Cooperberg to join the synagogue. By the end of the year, it had just a little short of 100 people attending services. Though not all of them were members, the group had come a long way from its first Friday night service. In December, the group voted to name itself: Congregation Beth Simchat Torah (CBST) – Hebrew for “House of the Joy of Torah” – but it didn’t have a Sefer Torah, a parchment scroll of the Five Books of Moses, hand-written by a ritually trained calligrapher. A scroll is usually specially commissioned and writing it is a costly process that can take about a year. The congregation simply couldn’t afford it. All they had for services was “a mimeographed prayer book.” So said an article on page 21 of the December 23 issue of The New York Times, another indication of the congregation’s growing public profile. “A Homosexual Temple Holds Rites on West Side,” declared the headline. It provided the reader with a detailed account of the conditions that this young group found itself in.

“The men took seats on wooden folding chairs in a semicircle in a room at a West Side church community center they call their synagogue. The lights dimmed. A young man with a maroon velvet yarmulke on his head stood before the Sabbath candles. He lighted them one by one and read from a mimeographed ‘prayer book.’”

A detail that the reporter left out was that services were held in the children’s playroom of the church. The wooden folding chairs were actually meant for kids, not adults. It was clear that the newly named CBST would soon outgrow its original location.

However, Gubbay himself was in a difficult situation. A couple months after he started leading Friday services, Gubbay decided to apply for American citizenship, a decade after he first arrived, at the New York Southern District Court.[6] However, it didn’t go as planned and in 1974, Guabby left for Australia.

What he left behind was a quickly growing congregation. In February 1975, it crossed the 100-member mark. This was also the time when the Church of the Holy Apostles told the congregation that it couldn’t use the church’s space anymore and gave it several months to vacate. On February 2, the CBST board voted five to one to begin moving to a new location on 231 West 29th Street.

The problem, however, was that CBST was running low on money. Even though people kept joining the group, its budget didn’t benefit from the growth in membership because, as a part of a membership drive, the synagogue had lowered its annual membership dues from $30 to $18. At that time, one could get a cut, wash and dry-blow at an Upper East Side hair salon for $10.

The board set the costs of operation for 1975 at $26,225, including a six-month security deposit, the purchase of 250 folding chairs and rent for the rest of the year. It was just a couple hundred dollars lower than the total asset of the synagogue at that time. It barely avoided deficit through aggressive fundraising activities. At the bottom of the budget proposal, the board noted that “this is a minimum, stripped-down budget…It contains none of the items we would want as soon as possible, such as: a Torah and an ark.”

Maybe God heard their prayers and saw their needs, or suburbanization simply worked its magic. In 1976, an opportunity presented itself for the synagogue to get a Torah scroll for free: Tremont Temple, a prominent Reform synagogue in the Bronx, decided to shut its doors and merge with another synagogue in Westchester, due to the continuous decline of the Bronx’s Jewish population. Tremont Temple had three Torah scrolls and was only going to keep one. Arnold Mandelbaum, chairman of the CBST, immediately contacted Tremont Temple.

On April 12, 1976, good news came back. “We will be in a position to provide a Torah for your synagogue,” wrote Samuel Feuchtwanger, secretary of Tremont Temple. CBST was lucky. Reform Judaism was known for its more open attitude towards the gay community. Two years earlier, the congregational arm of Reform Judaism, the Union of American Hebrew Congregations, made a historical decision to accept Temple Beth Chayim Chadashim, the gay synagogue in Los Angeles, as a member.

If it had been an Orthodox synagogue that was shutting down, or even a smaller synagogue that only had one Sefer Torah, CBST could have remained Torah-less. What we do know, from the archive, is that when Mandelbaum replied that “we are more than thrilled to give it a new home,” he meant it.

In August 1976, CBST’s social committee organized the synagogue’s first annual picnic. It was a great summer for CBST and its members: they had more members than ever, they moved to a better location, they did a boat ride, and they had a Torah.

[1] Shokeid, Moshe. A Gay Synagogue in New York. (1995): 33-34.

[2] The National Archives at Washington, D.C.; NAI Number: 2848504; Record Group Title: Records of the Immigration and Naturalization Service, 1787 – 2004; Record Group Number: 85; Series Number: A3998; NARA Roll Number: 749.

[3] “Church of the Holy Apostles.” NYC LGBT Historic Sites Project, www.nyclgbtsites.org/site/church-of-the-holy-apostles/.

[4] Moshe, 34.

[5] Kohen, Ayelet ha-Shaḥar. Changing Lives, Making History: Congregation Beit Simchat Torah: the First Forty Years. (2014): 14-15.

[6] The National Archives at New York City. Soundex Index to Petitions for Naturalization filed in Federal, State, and Local Courts located in New York City, 1792-1989.

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